In the Tri-Junction Entanglement, What Does Bhutan Want?

People in Bhutan seem to think it is time to resolve the dispute with China once and for all, without pandering to Indian interests.

As the India-China standoff persists, the key question is where Bhutan actually stands. India’s claim that Bhutan is fully with India on the issue seems questionable. The official statement issued by the Bhutanese government on June 29 does not make the country’s position explicit.

The 1949 Friendship Treaty (updated in 2007) guides the contemporary Indo-Bhutan relationship and aims to ensure India’s non-interference in Bhutan’s internal affairs. Article 2 of the 1949 version, however, entrusted India with the power to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. But Article 2 of the 2007 version freed Bhutan from seeking India’s guidance on foreign policy and obtaining permission over arms imports, among other things. The article now only says that India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

Even before the revised treaty, Bhutan’s UN membership in 1971 had fundamentally impaired the sacredness of the old Article 2. Bhutan is an independent country. It raised its diplomatic representation in New Delhi to the full ambassadorial level in 1971.

Notwithstanding all the geopolitical pulls and pressures, Bhutan has steadfastly stood behind India as its most reliable ally. But the impression among the Bhutanese now is that India has been coming in the way of Bhutan reaffirming its status as an independent state, especially in the foreign policy arena.

People in Bhutan think that India has for too long prevented their country from normalising diplomatic ties and negotiating a border settlement with China. India, on its part, fears that any boundary deal will not only impact Indian security but also impinge on its own negotiating position with China on the boundary issue. From Bhutan’s perspective, India’s position is adversely impacting its ties with China. This is the main issue that is leading to complexities and confusion, including the standoff at Doklam.

However, it appears that this is not the first time the Chinese have intervened and built roads not only in disputed territory, but also inside Bhutan.

Also read: The Bhutan Stand-Off Is an Opportunity, Not a Threat

Bhutan’s shares a 470-km-long border with China and according to some reports, over 25% of this border remained disputed for decades. China wanted Bhutan to cede a 269-square-km area in west Bhutan, including Dramana, Shakhatoe and Sinchulung, in exchange for which it had offered to give Bhutan a 495-square-km area in Pasamlung and Jakarlung.

In the Doklam plateau in the west, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is known to have made frequent intrusions since the mid-1960s. Talks with China began in 1972, but since 1984, negotiations became bilateral without India’s participation. The two countries managed to sign an Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in the Bhutan-China Border Areas in 1998.  Thus far, 24 rounds of discussion have taken place under the agreement. The last round was held in August 2016 in Beijing between Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin and Bhutanese foreign minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji. However, the Chinese have recently claimed that Bhutan and China have a basic consensus on the functional conditions and demarcation of their border region.

At the heart of the issue is the lingering suspicion in India about the possibility of Bhutan ceding the Doklam plateau – located on the strategic tri-junction of Bhutan, the Chumbi Valley in China and the state of Sikkim in India. The area is extremely critical to India’s security as it overlooks the Siliguri corridor. China, on the other hand, has held a tough position on Doklam and has been upgrading infrastructure networks, including roads in nearby areas, on the lines that it has built in Aksai Chin.

Bhutan’s slowly-changing stance

Until recently, as per the treaty obligation, Bhutan has kept India’s interest in mind and evaded a settlement with China. The general approach has been that the country could neither bargain nor impose its will on the matter, and therefore would go along with India and China’s mutual understanding.

Through this conflict, Bhutan has appeared to want to settle the Doklam issue once and for all, and thereafter maintain friendly and equidistant ties with both India and China.

We must note that Bhutanese position has been changing in a subtle way, especially the manner in which their boundary negotiation with China was proceeding without the knowledge of India. According to Govinda Rizal, a Bhutan watcher, soon after the Druk king had stepped down in 2007, the interim government produced a map without Kulakangri (Bhutan’s tallest peak), indicating that it had unofficially ceded the region to China. Rizal contended that during 2008-2013, Bhutan neither accepted the swap nor tried to regain the ‘cartographically ceded‘ land.

Nevertheless, Rizal said the two had agreed to the border demarcations in Pasamlung and Jakarlung. The settlement in the north was to pave the way to determine the course of action to settle the western border in Doklam. It seems that agreement on a political compromise had been reached during the 19th round of boundary talks held in January 2010. Perhaps this was also the outcome of the meeting between the then Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.

The agreement also perhaps included the decision to establish diplomatic ties. The Chinese claimed that China and Bhutan gained remarkable headway on the boundary issue during the 20th round of talks held in Thimphu on August 10, 2012.

According to some reports, China has already seized over 8,000 square km of Bhutanese land. Credit: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

According to Rizal, China had offered Thinley a financial deal for the border settlement. However, some news reports suggested that China had already seized over 8,000 square km and Bhutan’s total area has reduced to 38,390 square km from 46,500 square km since 2010. In fact, many suspected this was the reason for India’s disappointment, which resulted in it supporting (or even instigating) the defeat of Thinley and his party in the 2013 general elections in Bhutan and thus put a spoke in the wheel of the settlement.

Several Bhutanese analysts have argued that neither Bhutan nor India has a strong historical argument to lay claim over Doklam, Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhatoe vis-à-vis China. Bhutan’s claims, they contend, are based on an “imaginary line drawn on paper by some British surveyors – like those of the McMahon Lines – without actual verification on the ground,” wrote Yeshey Dorji, a well-known commentator.

Map of disputed areas between Bhutan and China. Credit: Indian Defence Review

Map of disputed areas between Bhutan and China. Credit: Indian Defence Review

Popular perception, then, is that Bhutan has no military capability and strategic considerations to hold on to Doklam, Jakarlung and the Pasamlung areas. Moreover, China has not even considered disputes in the Jakarlung and Pasamlung areas. But Doklam is different; as Dorji said, “Make no mistake – this issue of the Doklam Plateau is very, very scary! Is there something that the Indians and the Chinese know about this track of desolate and frigid wilderness that we Bhutanese don’t?”

Bhutanese perceptions are getting visibly louder on social media and the growing aspirations of the people suggest that Bhutan’s ability to withstand pressures from both China and India has become paramount.

An Indian view that offended Bhutan

The aversion – if not dislocation – among the Indian security establishment on the matter, which was noted by Dorji, was also brought out in an article, ‘Dealing with Doklam‘, by former Indian army lieutenant general Prakash Katoch. The 2013 article suggested, The king of Bhutan may consider selling the Doklam Plateau to India so that this bone of contention is resolved permanently”. His recommendation strongly provoked Bhutanese commentators, who decided that this was simply ‘lunacy’ coming from the Indian think tank circuit. It is “insane for anyone to believe that a nation would sell her land …..that too at the heart of the dispute and even while China is sitting on that very piece of land,” a commentator wrote. “Why such an experienced and senior high ranking military officer would be driven to such insane thoughts of desperation?”

The prevailing sentiment in Bhutan is in favour of resolving the issue with China amicably without further delay, so that the country can have a peaceful boundary with its northern neighbour as it has with India. It has been clearly indicated that the Bhutanese are getting impatient on the boundary question. This is also a sign of their growing disenchantment with India’s non-reciprocity to their deep commitments for Indian security concerns. As the commentator quoted above wrote, “Do not force the chicken to fly the coop. It is bad foreign policy.” Many also conveyed in private their impatience for change, saying Bhutan made many sacrifices for India which were in fact detrimental to its own interests.

Also read: To Prevent a Bigger Conflict, India and China Must Both Withdraw From Doklam

The Bhutanese have expressed the fear that a delayed resolution could lead to China toughening its position and reviving maximal territorial claims, that would result in Bhutan losing land as far as Kanglung to the east and Samdrup Jongkhar to the south. Chinese maps show the Arunachal Pradesh boundary, which China claims as its territory, extending up to Kanglung in east Bhutan. According to Rizal, Bhutan might lose another 4,500 square km or up to 10% of the country’s area if it fails to resolve disputes with China.

In June 2013, PLA troops made an intrusion through the Sektang region in the east and the Pang La region in the north, and built three posts inside Bhutanese territory. Rizal says, “Every year when India reports about the Chinese assertions, they provide impetus to push in more military men into Bhutan.”

Bhutanese authority generally remains mute and the media has neither the courage nor the concept to report incursions, he said. The only source of information for the world outside is through media in exile, like the Bhutan News Service.

What China is thinking

China has long desired an independent Bhutanese stand without Indian advocacy and interference on the boundary issue. Chinese academia often dubbed India’s interference as hegemony in South Asia. When Chinese vice foreign minister Liu visited Thimphu in August 2013, he talked about broadening relations. Chinese officials always indicated that for any steps to settle the boundary dispute once and for all, establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries is necessary. The Chinese have for years wanted to open an embassy in Thimphu. It had promised to upgrade the Bhutanese consulate in Hong Kong to an embassy, to promote increased tourist flows and exchange of visits, among other things.

Beijing finds itself in a strange position in not having diplomatic ties with neighbouring Bhutan, which has lately widened its foreign relations with 53 countries, including Japan, another adversary of China. However, since the change of government in Thimphu, no new country has been added to the list of states Bhutan has established diplomatic ties. The last country added was Oman, on March 15, 2013.

The key to Beijing’s strategy so far has been to dilute the Indian dominant position, seeking parity in the eyes of Bhutan. Towards this goal, Beijing worked first on its diplomacy by deciding to vote for Bhutan’s membership to the UN in 1971. Later, China managed to bring Bhutan to the negotiating table on the boundary issue and lately she may have perhaps influenced Thimphu to have Article 2 of 1949 Friendship Treaty with India removed altogether. Many Chinese analysts view Bhutan as already neutralised. Hordes of Bhutanese students are being offered scholarships in China. Many young Bhutanese frequently travel to Chinese cities for business and other reasons.

The view is that New Delhi pegged the boundary issue with the financial packages it offered to Bhutan so far. Despite a one-third cut in funds for Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom still gets Rs 3,714.13 crore of the total 6,479.13 crore or 57% allotted for India’s foreign aid budget during FY 2017-18 disbursed by the Ministry of External Affairs.

It was widely suspected that Thimphu’s discreet deals with China led to this financial cut and the election interference by India in 2013.

Clearly, the next election in Bhutan in October 2018 will be fought on pro- versus anti-Indian slogans.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like Nehru, had reportedly promised India’s continued security guarantee to Bhutan against any possible expansionist designs. Whether the Bhutanese still consider China as posing a real threat to them is the question, however..

P. Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador, is an expert on Himalayan affairs.